Thad’s Three Things: Bills at Patriots

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) gets past New England Patriots middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (8) with Patriots cornerback Myles Bryant (41) closing in to force him out of bounds during the second half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

Three things on my mind as the Bills return to their historical house of horrors in Foxboro…

Catch You Later

Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis both decided on the risk of not getting vaccinated and will now miss this Sunday’s game–at least–because of it. Both absences will cause issues.

Beasley hasn’t quite had the season he did last year, but he is still Josh Allen’s number one blitz release valve. This duty often falls to slot wideouts simply because they are closest to the quarterback when things get hot. Beyond that, you can tell Allen and Beasley have a next level chemistry that allows the Bills to defeat plenty of blitzes. It’s a job other receivers can complete, but it won’t be at the same level Beasley does it with Allen.

Davis has blossomed the last few weeks into a very solid, if not very above average playmaker. There’s a good argument he is currently Buffalo’s second best receiver. He’s also their best big body option in the red zone at receiver. That will all be difficult to replace.

The good news is the Bills still have a reasonably good trio they can start in Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Isaiah McKenzie. Having a plus tight end in Dawson Knox helps, too. With the Bills being an exorbitantly dominant 11 personnel team (a formation that usually requires three receivers), these three guys are going to be needed for a whole lot of snaps on Sunday. It’s something McKenzie hasn’t done all year and Sanders hasn’t done much in the last couple weeks.

Don’t Run Me Over

Can’t wait to find out what the Art of War has for Bill Belichick and the Patriots run game this week. The safest bet on Sunday will be the Bills run defense at least being good enough to force more than three pass attempts. The truth is Buffalo does win a whole lot more run downs than they lose. The problem is the run game losses have been flirting with the embarrassing level, no matter what Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde might think.

The Bills one-gap scheme allows for the bust out run when it gets burned. Whether it’s Derrick Henry or Leonard Fournette or Damien Harris, one mistake for the Bills or one bad play has too often led to a game-changing touchdown.

The Bills won’t have Star Lotulelei against the Patriots. He remains their best interior run defender. However, Lotulelei has not played much at all and definitely not at his usual level in the last couple months. I’m not sure how much his absence is a negative, but it does remove the possibility he could be a positive.

The run D does not have to be great to win this game. Just produce 60 minutes where, when it’s over, there doesn’t need to be a debate if any part of the afternoon was embarrassing.

The Mac Attack

I could almost copy and paste this section from the preview of the game in Orchard Park three weeks ago since we never really got to see what Mac Jones versus the Bills pass D looks like.

On the one hand, this is still a rookie quarterback taking on a very experienced and talented secondary with an experienced and talented group of coaches. It should be a difficult chore for Jones to get much of anything going.

The flip side of this discussion is that the Patriots offensive line has been so good, it’s allowed Jones time to read defenses at a slower rookie pace and still be successful. The Bills front four is not going to challenge New England much when it comes to rushing the passer. That means Leslie Frazier is going to have to dial up another variety of creative and unique blitzes to make Jones nervous. He has been very good at it this year and he has, at his disposal, what I think is the NFL’s best blitzing linebacker in Matt Milano.

This to me is going to be a subtly important part of the game. Can the Bills create some issues with the blitz? If not, Jones is going to have all day. I don’t care how good your secondary is (and the Bills are very good with or without Tre White), that’s usually going to be a win for the offense.

The Pick

There is no underestimating how huge it was for the Bills to get Dion Dawkins back off the Covid list Saturday. The Pro Bowl left tackle not only solidifies that spot, but it allows Spencer Brown to go back to his more comfortable right tackle and for Daryl Williams to go back to his more comfortable right guard. Although the Bills offensive line has not been great and maybe not even above average this year, the five who will start against New England are more than sufficient to create a win.

There is certainly a question about how healthy Dawkins is after another week dealing with Covid. There’s no telling what kind of symptoms or impact the disease took on Dawkins in his second exposure to it, especially when the first was a scary bout that included a four day hospital stay in the summer. Let’s assume, because the Bills activated him, that he should be at least reasonably good to go.

To me, the key in this game is who wins on the early downs. If the Bills are forced to convert a lot of third downs and put together 13-15 play drives for touchdowns, it makes a long day for Allen and company. If the Patriots are forced to rely on Jones to extend drives too many times, it’s hard to see New England keeping up with the Bills ability to score points. This might be true of most games, but I think you might be able to look at the number of third down chances and pick the loser by who has more.

For the Bills to win this game, they’re going to need success in a lot of areas that haven’t been very successful for them all season. They’ll have to contain a plus run game. Beat a team that’s more physical. They’ll probably have to win a close game and win a game against squad that isn’t dead men walking. Buffalo hasn’t done any of that since the KC game in mid-October 11 weeks ago. It’s a tough ask, especially on the road and especially after an uncertain week of Covid lineup changes.

If the Bills win this game, they will recover much of the Super Bowl level expectations lost over the lat two months. They will be about a 90 percent favorite to win the division and, at least, play their first playoff game at home. All things considered, it will be a helluva win and it’s far from impossible.

Sometimes, it is just not your year. Right now, it feels that way in Buffalo. I think this game will come right down to the end just like the one in Orchard Park a couple Mondays ago. And just like that one, I think the Patriots make the last play. Give me New England 27-20.

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